Years ago, I reviewed the first four of Madeline L’Engle’s Time Quintet (which when I was young was called the Time Quartet, which explains much): A Wrinkle in Time (1962), A Wind in the Door (1973), A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978), Many Waters (1986) — the fifth in the series, An Acceptable Time (1989), I haven’t read and likely won’t. I also reviewed The Arm of the Starfish (1965) and Dragons in the Water (1976), both of which involve the Murry family. The Arm of the Starfish was written relatively shortly after A Wrinkle in Time (three years) and eight years before the second novel of the quintet, so it might have had some bearing on my review, except that it is situated temporally after A Wind in the Door, involving as it does Meg and Calvin’s daughter Poly.
So why am I revisiting A Wind in the Door, when it — like its companions in the Quartet, with the very notable exception of A Wrinkle in Time — is not really all that good a book? Well, I have recently been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, which when I was young (and indeed until relatively recently) was not considered real. Believe me it is: and it is caused by the failure of the mitochondria within one’s cells, for whatever reason.
When I first read A Wind in the Door as a teen, I found the dancing faranadolae, and the beatnikish psychedelic descriptions of the characters flitting from one place to another — which seemed sometimes to be more for the author’s own hubris than to move the story forward — rather discombobulating if not just off-putting. So mitochondria and farandolae and prokaryocytes were just big words to glance over, slotted into a category: “noun having to do with human biology that the author is using for her specific purpose: may or may not be real.” I later learned that mitochondria are real, and that farandolae are not, as mentioned in my earlier review, but didn’t really care much past that. But when the doctors started talking about mitochondria dying and energy loss, and the interesting mechanisms by which mitochondria replicate either their health or their illness, thus effecting the cells and the human host, I thought back to Charles Wallace and thought I should read the novel again.
I started by rereading A Wrinkle in Time, just because there was an excuse to. It remains as delightful and reassuring a classic as always, if a bit overly assertively Christian at times. As a teen, I saw that as a bonus, not a flaw. A Wind in the Door, though, became — understandably — far more interesting. My biggest question before reading it was: why then? What caused L’Engle, in 1973, to revisit the Murry family — in fact to return to the Murry children, when she had already written about Meg and Calvin’s daughter—and address some weird microbiological subject? The answer to the first part of this, I suspect, is that she needed a character with whom the reading public had already formed a sympathetic bond — i.e., Charles Wallace. The previously established relationship between Meg and Charles Wallace also facilitates the thematic repetition of the climax of A Wrinkle in Time; in both novels, Meg’s love for Charles Wallace (almost storge, the parental love for a child) extrapolated to agape, the universal love of mankind, is ultimately the power that saves. But there had to have been, I surmised, some immediate sort of scientific breakthrough in the news that interested her, as well. I searched for a simple timeline of mitochondrial research, but of course found none. There is a fascinating article by Lars Ernster and Gottfried Schatz, published in 1981, but the history is not simple. I also found a couple of blog posts about L’Engle’s use of science in A Wind in the Door, one of which, “Biology in Science Fiction,” simplifies the history by stating that mitochondrial research
was a cutting edge (and controversial) idea when A Wind in the Door was published in 1973, the endosymbiotic theory of mitochondrial origins having been proposed by Lynn Margulis just six years earlier.
So that explains that. And I will set aside my eye rolls about the teenage attitude of Sporos the farandola, and indeed the whole microcosmos L’Engle builds there, to note that “mitochondritis” such as Charles Wallace had is not a thing, either. I wish it were. Mitochondrial disease/dysfunction is real, but it is not curable in the way that Charles Wallace is cured. What they didn’t know way back in 1973 is that mitochondrial illness is a long-term, seemingly irreparable condition. Once the Echthroi get in, there is no posse of cherubim and Megs and Calvins and Mr. Jenkins to help the little farandolae Deepen, and save the mitochondria and the host organism. So maybe that’s intentionally the exact point at which L’Engle’s novel moves into fantasy. Maybe it isn’t a hodge-podge mixture of science and fiction, but draws a solid line between mitochondrial research (where she’s fairly sound, given what the lay population knew at the time) and the heroic actions of our protagonists and the fara and farandolae as they enact her hypothesis of a fantasy cure in her fictional world.
I know that I came away liking the book better for having a better understanding of (and connection to) the real science, and thus the boundary between fact and fantasy in the novel. I did come away, too, really wishing that the Magic School Bus nature of this fantasy were real, and mitochondrial disease was closer to being understood, prevented, and even cured.
As an aside, one of the articles I read discussing science in the novel, the author of which was pleased that the novel had been their initial source of this fascinating piece of scientific knowledge, included a link to a New Yorker biographical article about Madeline L’Engle that is well worth a read if you are interested in the author at all, and have not exhausted your (I believe it is) two free New Yorker articles for the year. I know have now, but it was worth it. The author’s biography explained so much about her, and clarified so many question I have had about her ideologies and the philosophies underlying her texts.